Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Genesis 4:9, “Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” [Cain] said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?””

Cain asks the rhetorical question trying to hide his murderous crime, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” His assumed answer is “No!” but that is not what Lord commands mankind. As the proceeding dialogue from the Lord demonstrates, the answer is yes, we are in fact our brother’s keeper and have responsibility towards him.

The Decalogue (or 10 Commandments) which were given to Moses at Sinai are divided into two tablets, the first tablet deals with our relationship to God. The whole of the second table is how we relate to man. In Exodus 20:15, which is the 8th commandment, states: “You shall not steal.” Is it just limited to that though?

The Westminster Larger Catechism Question and Answer #99 helps us to understand our duty with regard to our neighbor by laying out eight rules (only the six of immediate pertinence are shown) for understanding the Decalogue:

3. That one and the same thing, in divers respects, is required or forbidden in several commandments.

4. That as, where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included.

5. That what God forbids, is at no time to be done; what he commands, is always our duty; and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times.

6. That under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.

7. That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavour that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.

8. That in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.

So what is forbidden? Theft. What is the positive aspect of the law? You shall work to preserve and improve your neighbor’s goods and wealth. Even if they are our enemy as Moses in Exodus 23:4 commands us, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again.” In Exodus 20:13, the sixth commandment, states, “You shall not murder.” The positive aspect of the law is that I am to do everything lawful within my power to defend and protect the life of my neighbor.

Neighbor is an important term here. Points 5, 7 and 8 from WLC 99 are important and is indicative of our duty to mankind within our sphere or proximity of influence. Who is my neighbor one of the Jewish Leaders asked Jesus? Then he talked about the man ambushed by highwaymen and left for dead at the side of the road. The Samaritan comes by and he recognizes the need of his neighbor and renders aid even at personal cost. Who is my neighbor? It is all those whom God’s providence places within your sphere.

So Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” From the foundation of the world, for all of mankind, and especially the Christian, the answer is qualified but duty bound “Yes!”

Feature Art: “The Journey Home” by George Vicat Cole (1833-1893)

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